by Emmanuel Esomnofu
Tonight I can write the saddest lines. She doesn’t give a fuck. I had entered the room drunk and gay. Across waters, and land, and music, and everything else that takes up space, I fought. Fought with the resilience of night and with the stamina of day. Fought to bridge the divide – But her words were hesitant, unfeeling. Unrequited love? Still the world’s most prolific killer.
It was night. We had been smoking. My back against a wall, the others sitting. Wilson was going through my phone, his expectant features illuminated by the phone’s light. As he passed the phone back to me, he had this resigned look. Words, being words, failed to relay his scepticism. The night ended in noises and slaps to the back and more cigarettes. I was a student at federal university in Nigeria, after two years of trying.
* * *
Night in Abeokuta. The bus had stopped. The girl was with me. Her name the only thing I knew about her, yet destiny was lulling a song into my ears, or so I thought.
Walking to just about anywhere which seemed right, we were finally able to find the Naval School. Students sat outside. From across the road, we must have readied our lines of sportsmanship. If she was scared, my female companion, she didn’t show it. Darkness squeezed into the earth like the hand of the hungry into the chosen loaf. I like to think back to those hours now, as graceful and lucky.
We found a place to sleep, bathe the morning after, and depart for the exams with the promise of a meal to return to. But we didn’t. We took off for Lagos immediately after, without saying thanks to our hosts.
* * *
Circumstances Make a Worthy Revolutionary.
Everybody knew. I let off words at a prolific rate. Conspiracy theories about my ‘real’ result being swapped with someone else’s. deep within the crevices of my mind, was this spoiled child who might have been a metaphor – who knows? He had been a breathing, kicking living thing. Whereas he trudged the earth with a self-assured air; he was a victim of his prosperity.
I had always believed in poverty. Not of a financial kind but that which provokes improvisation, that which bends your skin into what was previously thought of as impossible shapes. The child who stole my first JAMB result lacked this poverty, and beneath every rant, I pitied him.
I’ve only told one person this tale:
In the fourth year of my primary school education in Tender Crowns (in Kirikiri town), I returned home to Abdullahi street, to my mother and our properties outside. Bags of clothes, utensils, mundane objects, physical copies of our – until then – uninterrupted everyday life scattered about, left in the glare of the passerby.
Months later, we would leave Kirikiri to start another life in Ajegunle. The reality of what would become ‘home’ scared me. I feared for my bones. But the prospect of finding joy in unexpected places wasn’t lost on me.
What I don’t know, I imagine.
The picture is of me, a portrait. I wield a smile as luxurious as time. But it is forced. My face is wet with water. I had just taken a bath. I saw my elder sister’s wig and thought about it – the picture. My lips purple and my eyes brown. She throws a comment on 2go and a world is built around it. I think I love her. I think she too, loves me. I imagine.
Ogechukwu Samuel is tall and smiling. He calls my name and I turn. I recognise him almost at once, his distinct hair above him like a halo. Or maybe a crown, as he prefers for a metaphor.
We are in Nsukka, before a big building in which our dreams could actualise into a thing. After the post-UTME exam, I wait for him. He takes his time when walking, slowly, as if finding words of poetry for every step. Like writers do when they meet, we gossip about other writers. I ask him about his phase in the Great Writing Struggle and he smiles, answering my curious questions with humorous clarity.
‘Who be that?’ I ask him after he drops a call.
‘It’s this girl . . .’
I laugh, partly at his accomplished mien of gentlemanliness and what I referred to as an auto-tune voice, and partly at the familiarity of the tale. I also had been looking forward getting laid, seeing as I had a room to myself. But it wasn’t to come. Not then, not now.
Later, Harrison joins us. He’s a writer too, Ogechukwu Samuel tells me. I suppress a smile; a friend of mine would call this gathering phony. But we talk, irrespective. We talk about Adichie and some Facebook banters. We talk about our works, we talk about our future. I tell Ogechukwu about the writers’ community in UNN. We’ll check it out, he says. He doesn’t know I won’t become a student. He doesn’t know I’ll fail to scale through the admission process, not good enough to be a ‘lion’. What he knows, as Harrison, is that the weather is good for a walk. So we walk, taking pictures.
I don’t like travelling.
I find it rather physically exertive and impossible to love without money to buy from the innumerable roadside hawkers.
I really don’t like travelling. But if you believe the reports (although unverified) about being a nine-to-five working Lagosian, you spend most of your life in traffic.
As opposed to travel, traffic renders a powerlessness to your mobility or how willing you are to exert it.
Traffic is a mockery. Travelling is an expense. Choose your demon.
I’ve had it hard with relationships. People who dare look past my charming brilliance see me for the fraud that I am.
Beneath my eye for poetry is an uninterested gaze. Every step suffered from what I deemed a lack of sophistication – I failed to see the immense depth in every life. I focused on my own depth, subconsciously rocking my penis with self-generated lather and thought everybody else as shallow.
This was the same in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. The disgraced, David Lurie, makes a trip into Dark Africa to see Lucy, his only daughter. She has become a tough nut, the kind of woman whose independence is unforced but rather, natural.
She tends to dogs, takes farm produce to the market for sale. She has no man in her life, none that David knows of. She finds happiness in the familiarity of the ordinary; she pursues nothing more than what the country life offers her. And David Lurie is unhappy with this, even if he tries to be prudent with his words. When he makes a case against her mundane lifestyle, she asks him if he thinks she ought to aspire to higher heights ‘because I’m your daughter.’ He: a scholar, a man worthy of reverence in his professional life.
There is no higher life, Lucy seems to say. Maybe she even says the words. David finds this unsavoury, but he lets it pass. He refuses to be nice to animals, not out of pity for their existential plight.
One night, I stumbled upon some words I once sent to a girl while chatting. Upon reading it a second time, I copied and sent them to Nenye and Itiola on WhatsApp, two ladies I’ve known since primary school; my relationship with both a classic blend of she’s-just-a-friend and I’ll-hit-that-if-the-opportunity-ever-comes.
The message read: I think that me and you wouldn’t have turned out badly, irrespective of what we’ll both like to think.
Man is a creation of desire. Through his different evolutions, desire has been his consistent nature.
“Our souls are fires that have forgotten how to burn.”
After several pleas from two of my closest friends, I downloaded some episodes of the TV series, Greys Anatomy.
They had said many good things about the film created by Shonda Rhimes. Many things I found to be true in just under five hours, six episodes in: Every part of the body played this mammoth role in one’s life, even the most recklessly abused. Death hung in every corner of the hospital (Seattle Grace) which was the workplace of some five brilliant interns. The series’ focal characters: Alex Karev, George O’Malley, Cristina Yang, Isobel Stevens and the focal character amongst the focal characters, Meredith Grey.
I remember asking Chiugo why the series was named so and he had no articulate answer for me. He mumbled his way past a street of words and an alley of hand signs and he was done: I had to watch it for myself.
Oge was more interested in Derek, who by all his tales about the guy, seemed to be eccentric (though later I would find ninety-five per cent of all the characters to be). Derek was the kind of guy who, although world-renowned, would work in isolation, far removed from the mechanical hassles of civilization. In the meantime, he lived in a trailer on a large expanse of land, all of which he owned.
Why did I decide to watch Greys Anatomy? I don’t know. Maybe because I was bored. Maybe because I held its ardent admirers in high esteem. They, after all, had introduced me to White Collar, which I enjoyed.
From the first second, there was a kind of organised chaos, a professional technique sucking in the curiosity of its viewer. Each series has to have something preternatural, I now understand, to be worth its salt. Each flicker of the human condition is tweaked for a flame. Each flame is tweaked for the Holocaust. Normal doesn’t work, as Greys Anatomy showed me.
I watched extraordinary doctors, nurses and hospital staff and some unbelievably stupid ones, all cast before the big screen. To save lives, their most humane qualities are collected by the director and amplified as love, the universe’s oldest answer for the unexplainable. These actors begin to love one another, and the series reveals itself to be full-time romance, and part-time, coping technique.
When a life is lost, how do the people who looked into the eyes of the dead when they were alive react? Or do they turn away from the lifeless body and announce the time of death? Do they try to save the person till reality pokes its finger in their eye and draw tears?
I like to think that in some warped twist of fate I was brought to Greys Anatomy to see what I’ve always imagined: Death – the last seconds, when they say your life flickers before your eyes. (Who could decline the chance to see life in sizable amounts of detail?)
What could I have said had I been on my friend Martins’ side as he breathed his last? Would I have cried, or screamed for help? Did he suffer or cross into what his religion believes to be the sartorial white of Heaven’s gloriousness or the red fires of Hell? Or, as I like to imagine as peaceful, did he stop like a spoilt clock? No heaven, no hell, no living or knowledge of his having ever lived.
On the sixth ring she picked the call. It was evening and I sat with a friend in an enclosed field, which was a prayer ground for Muslims who owned the land, if others hadn’t found a more frequent purpose for it footballing.
The call was one to have a good laugh about; what she lacked in conversational depth, she made up for in voice: cooing, softness, surrender. I had told a friend how I hated this. Somewhere in between our back and forth, I gleaned from her that she’d stopped the job at a popular restaurant in Nnamdi Azikiwe University where I met her.
The restaurant was a well-structured place. With seats arranged sparsely within its open space, it encouraged an easy route to one’s destination without much trouble. At night, male students led a girl to a seat, and she (my girl on the phone), with two other girls who served as waitresses, approached the tables to take orders. When we met, I sensed she was enamoured by my reserve. My inability to look directly into her eye. My sheepish smile when she asked, ‘Wetin you go chop?’
When it seemed the ASUU strike wasn’t going to be called off soon, two days before I left for Lagos, I told her I was leaving, and she got moody, but in some burst of spiritedness, she asked for my number. She called on the supposed morning of my departure, which I put it off until Sunday, three days away, when I sensed endearment could lead to something physically intimate.
The next two days through several phone calls, I asked her to come over; work, she said, was her obstacle.
I must have been nine or so in the last year of our lives in Kirikiri. As a kid I had a dormant imagination, only knowing things I’d been taught. It couldn’t have been a thought, but the possibility borders the shores of the impossible. What was this?
Two events: In one, it was an early morning when the air was dark blue and the world paused for a rest, only the nocturnal creatures crooning. I slipped out of bed and climbed downstairs, two storeys from the flat we lived in, and attempted to open the main gate for someone or something. If this happened, I must have been strung in between both worlds of dream and reality.
The second event: I was playing in the large front compound of the Arabs who made ninety per cent of my friends then. Under the moon’s gaze, we were playing and laughing crazily when one of the twin sisters, Amina or Benue (elder siblings to my friend Fatimah) took me under a staircase and touched me in the private parts of my body.
Till today I still struggle to place these events. Were they imagined or did they happen? Like restless demons, they still trudge beside the walls of my memory.
‘Then I searched the world for those who lost their country, pointlessly carrying their defeated flags, their Stars of David, their miserable photographs.’
– Pablo Neruda, ‘The Saddest Century’
‘As surgeons’, so do most episodes of Greys Anatomy begin. Meredith Grey’s voice dominates the ears most times, as the compassionate camera moves ever slowly between scenes which render life to her often didactic words.
One intoxicated night, I told Oge he was too attached to eccentrics. He defended himself, indirectly stating escapism is his reason for watching any series so keenly. I thought eccentricity was easy to achieve: Meredith, Karev, and most of all, Derek. All were characters whom we looked at with admiration, for unreal personalities.
Then, that was my view – fuck eccentricity. I loved the boring George O’Malley and the genius surgeon but relationship-clueless Preston Burke. I loved Eazy Stephens, who seemed to be the simplest. Until recently. Already I had conceded that normal doesn’t work but why the overarching desire to infect almost everyone with an instantly amiable or annoying personality? It comes to me now.
Doctors usually are victims of their archetypical function, i.e. intelligent but unsmiling people who only save lives. Shonda Rhimes, in order to have us feel for her cast, tweaks our preconceived notions to something so strongly believed and renders it an act of incredulity.
On the eve of the New Year, I, Chiugo and Oge sit outside the main auditorium of the Apapa branch of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission Church. We arrive late, so we make do.
Just as the ten seconds countdown to the new year begin, Chiugo gets up. Enigmatic Chiugo, eager to a fault. Many people get up. Oge, too. Four seconds to go, I stand, too.
Happy New Year! Cries soar, as people hug and congratulate each other. I welcome a few hugs and handshakes before the thought happens. How easily my head had been placed in the mouth of the beast. Tears form in my eyes, my head throbs. I cry. Tears of joy.
Before I travelled to Awka to register as a first-year student in Nnamdi Azikiwe University, I went to a friend, Nwalioba Emmanuel, another student whose room I was to stay in for some time before I got mine.
I like Nwalio’s company, probably because of his humorous tendencies and, whether he knows it or not, spectacular tales, usually about a female he is attracted to. I went to his house to talk about his unique experiences in UNIZIK and to quench an intensely burning fire of curiosity concerning the strenuous registration. Topping the ice was that Emmanuel and I had another common interest: poetry. He recently began writing some. He was reflective in a distracted way, and I found a Haruki Murakami similarity in his poems, a kind of lazy freedom. I told him this inarticulately. He grinned like the Joker.
That afternoon, a week before I would depart on a fool’s journey to Awka (I came back without getting any registration done ), I told him I was working on a piece about my travails with JAMB and admissions palaver. I thought I had it in me. After all, I had written the exam thrice, and it had taken me to three cities, Abeokuta, Nsukka and Awka. He hadn’t asked for the title of the piece (which was the only thing about the piece I was sure of then) but I told him anyway.
We were in his mother’s shop and every five minutes or so it seemed, a mechanic would push his oil-stained face into the patterned metallic gate and demand for things which catered to his job. It was a well-thought-out enterprise.
‘Wetin?’ Nwalioba Emmanuel asked me when he returned from selling a can of thinner to a customer. ‘Title.’
I smiled, as I did whenever offered a chance to profundity. ‘The primitive man makes his escape,’ I say.
He waited, knowing I was going to explain what it meant, whether he asked or not.
‘ “Primitive” means early, original, abi?’ I start.
‘Seeking education – no matter wetin I talk about school or being creative – makes me a primitive man, a believer in a system older than I am – an often trusted system. As opposed to living off my hard work and talents, a degree is an almost certainty. So the escape is an irony. I’m going off to Awka to be trapped inside the four walls again, but it is a slavery which I choose. Rather than live here, in Ajegunle, where people smoke all day and engage in all sorts of vices to stay sane, school is the primitive man’s idea of organisation. In a sense, I’m a primitive man. See those people outside, smoking and drinking, they’re the real revolutionaries. They aspire to no higher life because they don’t see past themselves. And they’re happy. Isn’t that what we all aspire to? Happiness?’
I must have said something to that effect. All the while, he sat on a couch, legs splayed forward. He would take his turn in telling me of a girl he’d met in Awka, a girl he has attributed The One status to. A girl whose journey with him I remarked, seemed like a Jünot Díaz story■
A widely published music journalist, Emmanuel Esomnofu explores art in its many forms, and he has been published for his prose and poetry. His works have appeared in The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Urban Central, and elsewhere. He is currently seeking freelance opportunities in music journalism.